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Olympians lending expertise on staffs of girls’ hockey programs

By DAVID LA VAQUE, Star Tribune, 02/22/21, 7:45PM CST


Gold medalists Hannah Brandt, Kelly Pannek and Maddie Rooney bring awe to top high school teams.

Centennial girls' hockey assistant coach Maddie Rooney talked to goalie Anna Peterson during practice at Centennial Sports Arena. Photo: LEILA NAVIDI • leila.navidi@startribune.com

When 2018 Olympic gold medalist Maddie Rooney went to work as an assistant coach at Centennial High School, ninth-grader Kaitlin Groess was admittedly star-struck.

Groess figured she could at least relate to Rooney goalie-to-goalie, but she froze, unable to discuss watching the gold medal game as a sixth-grader, surrounded by teammates in her basement. She remembered stressing for Rooney as the game with four-time defending Olympic champion Canada went to a shootout.

“I thought when you win a gold medal that you’re a celebrity, so I was super shy,” Groess said. “For about two weeks, I only spoke when she asked me a question.”

Rooney, along with Olympic teammates Hannah Brandt and Kelly Pannek, are behind the bench this winter on three of the state’s best teams. Brandt (third-ranked Hill-Murray) and Pannek (No. 4 Benilde-St. Margaret’s) are assistants at their alma maters. Rooney, an Andover graduate, joined one of her youth hockey coaches, Sean Molin, at No. 15 Centennial.

All three women find time amid their preparations for making the 2022 Olympic roster. And they are learning as well as teaching.

“There is momentum in women’s hockey right now, and I wanted to be involved in an opportunity to give back — to benefit the younger girls and myself,” said Rooney, who secured the gold medal victory with her fourth save in the shootout.

Players such as Groess, the winning goaltender in eight of the Cougars’ first nine victories, have appreciated Rooney’s humility.

“She was more chill than I thought,” Groess said of Rooney. “So easy to talk to.”

Instant credibility

Brandt is in Year 2 at Hill-Murray, while Pannek coached at Bloomington Jefferson last season. Colorado native and fellow Olympian Nicole Hensley is an assistant coach at Mounds View. Adding Rooney this season taught Molin what coaches at those other programs already discovered.

“Players like Maddie bring your program a lot of credibility,” Molin said. “Girls look up to her and she is able to help us coaches push buttons and motivate kids in different ways.”

Hill-Murray coach Caesare Engstrom said: “Hannah brings great attention to detail and offers beneficial feedback. I respected her quite a bit as a player, so it’s fun to learn from her now and see everything come full circle.”

All three Olympians have avoided flooding players’ brains with years of high-level hockey knowledge. Pannek encourages Benilde-St. Margaret’s players to sharpen their instincts.

“High school girls are very literal,” Pannek said. “If you tell them where to go, they go right to that place and stand and wait. To some extent, that becomes a fault. I’m trying to teach them to read the game.”

Emma Hoen, a Red Knights junior forward who began this week tied for second on her team with 10 points, said she appreciates the way Pannek “explains things in ways we haven’t always heard. And she always gives you direct eye contact. From our first practice with her, you could see that she is very passionate about hockey.”

On-the-job training

Active Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association members, Brandt, Pannek and Rooney are available for 80% of the high school season. Rooney coaches the Centennial defensive corps during games, enriching her understanding of the game.

“You realize, ‘Wow this game can be pretty simple,’ ” Rooney said. “We get so caught up in advancement that the basics can be overlooked sometimes.”

Brandt said: “You do learn by watching. And I think it helps that I am still playing and that I can relate in terms of knowing what players want from their coaches.”

Brandt has preferred a fuller coaching experience to the blur of summer training.

“I didn’t want to be just a skills coach where you barely know the girls after a week at camp,” she said. “I wanted to make an impact as a mentor.”

‘Just one of us’

Hoen was an eighth-grader when Pannek brought her gold medal to Benilde-St. Margaret’s. Seeing her at practice was almost too much.

“A lot of us were nervous because she is a legend at Benilde-St. Margaret’s,” Hoen said. “But when we got to know her, we learned that she is just one of us.”

Players have become comfortable enough with Pannek to chirp her practice wardrobe. Pannek donned her Team USA gear before Benilde-St. Margaret’s coaching apparel and equipment arrived.

One day, Pannek said, “A couple of the players teased me and said, ‘Oh, you’re not wearing your Team USA pants today.’ ”

Should those high schoolers forget the level of player inside those Team USA clothes, however, Pannek need only turn serious.

“Sometimes she fills in during a drill or a scrimmage and you can see her flip the switch,” Hoen said. “She’s left me in awe.”

At Hill-Murray, a practice drill called Pago calls for 5-on-5 hockey using only half the rink. Limited space doesn’t deter Brandt.

“I’ll see her making moves that I try to mimic — but I can’t,” Engstrom said with a laugh.

Though disarmed by the affable Rooney, Groess said she and her teammates still lack the nerve to request that Rooney come to practice with the gold medal.

“We talk about it in the locker room,” Groess said. “But no one has asked her yet.”

Gold-medal coaches at a glance

Hannah Brandt, 27

Assistant coach at Hill-Murray (2012 graduate)
Ms. Hockey and Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year in 2012
College hockey: Minnesota (three-time NCAA champion)

Kelly Pannek, 25

Assistant coach at Benilde-St. Margaret’s (2014 graduate)
Star Tribune All-Metro first team in 2014
College hockey: Minnesota (two-time NCAA champion)

Maddie Rooney, 23

Assistant coach at Centennial (2015 Andover graduate)
Led Andover girls to first state tournament in 2014
College hockey: Minnesota Duluth

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